The Many Faces of Superman

Before I get to the main topic of this post, NEWS!

For those of you not in the know, The Dark Knight Returns is pretty much ranked up there with Watchmen in the annuls of comic history. The brainchild of the once well-respected writer and artist Frank Miller and released as a limited comic book series in 1986, TDKR was one of the first comics to deconstruct and truly examine  many of the tropes of the superhero genre, as well as being possibly the best character study of the caped crusader himself. The story is deceptively straight forward; set in the near- future, a retired Bruce Wayne is driven to once more don the cowl in order to save Gotham from itself. Sound familiar?

Any fans of the Nolan’s breathtaking finale (particularly it’s lead villain) would also be well advised to pick up Knightfall.

And on we go.

DC Animation: A Brief Introduction

Despite the . . . lacklustre performance of DC’s live action adaptations (The Dark Knight trilogy aside, obviously), their animated works are largely rated as classics in their own right, balancing comic canon, excellent dramatic writing, superb voice acting (Mark Hamill,  Clancy Brown and Kevin Conroy) and strikingly stylized artwork (I’m looking at you, Batman: The Animated Series; buy it, steal it, find it, watch it). Hell, B:TAS even created comic canon by introducing the Joker’s much loved (and much abused) accomplice in crime Harley Quinn , as well as establishing Mr Freeze as a truly tragic figure, rather than a two dimensional madman with a penchant for freezing people.

The success of B:TAS led Warner Bros. Animation to develop Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures,  Batman Beyond (a sci-fi update following a new teenage Batman in a futuristic Gotham (seriously better than it sounds), Static Shock and the much-loved Justice League. If you were a child of the nineties, you probably loved at least one of these shows and know exactly what I’m talking about. For many kids this was the closest you could get to the comics and classic stories without hunting them down.

After a nearly continuous run over more than a decade, the DC animated universe ground to a halt with the end of Justice League Unlimited in 2006. Warner Brothers have continued to release animated films in a separate continuity from pre-existing works whilst borrowing heavily upon classic comics to produce films such as Superman: Doomsday (The death of Superman), Batman: Year One, Wonder Woman (actually pretty good) and Justice League: The New Frontier (loving homage to the golden age of comics), to name but a few. Not actually knowing much about these feature length adaptations, I recently got hold of a few and decided to watch them. I was impressed more often than I was disappointed, but one thing that struck more than anything else were the radically different interpretations of the various heroes, though the most noticeable (and perhaps jarring) was Superman. So now for no other reason than it amuses me to do so, I present to you the many faces of Superman.

The Many Faces of Superman

Superman: The Animated Series

I love this design.It’s simple, iconic and one of the most enduring interpretations of the character to date. The series itself is excellent and a compact crash course in Superman mythology presented with a few original flourishes. I’ll definitely be devoting a post to this later on.

Superman: Doomsday

Of all the various Superman variations, this is the one I’m most conflicted about. One of the one hand it adheres pretty closely to the S:TAS design, but those damn facial lines remind me way too much of the original (and widely disliked) Justice League design. Obviously it’s an attempt to give Superman a slightly harder, more mature edge but it just looks like he’s recovering from a case of super-flu to me. The story is great though and an excellent adaptation of the “Death of Superman” arc. My only real gripe is that this probably would have benefited from a longer length and more of an initial focus on Doomsday as a credible threat.

Superman vs. The Elite

One thing that shines through in most of the Superman designs is an attempt to portray the character’s innate integrity, determination and kind-heartedness. This does pretty much the opposite of that, rendering Superman as a cartoon-ish (in the worst way) loud mouth. The film itself is decent, though the animation isn’t anything special and the story (adapted from Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?“) could benefit from being a tad more complex, especially given these are aimed at a more mature audience. Nice to see a relatively modern, if not particularly well-known, story being adapted though.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

I’m pretty neutral about this one, it’s far from my favourite but nowhere near as bad as the worst offenders. The story itself is relatively interesting, if a little contrived and there’s not much here to really keep your attention, aside from a few super brawls and one or two characters who don’t really pop up in any of the other films.

Justice League: The New Frontier

I actually really like this design. It manages to balance the simplicity of the S: TAS design with a look that fits neatly in with the other contemporary re-designs. Justice League: The New Frontier is also one of the best feature length DC animations to date, especially from the perspective of someone who’s always had a somewhat distant fascination with the Golden Age of Comics.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Not a bad design, all things considered. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is solid, if not particularly impressive. Mark Harmon voices Superman whilst James Woods reminds the world why he was cast as Hades with a dark turn as the coolly omnicidal Owlman.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

Oh god, kill it with fire! Kill it with with fire!

No, but in all honesty this is one of the weaker entries in the DC animated film series but it does a passable job of adapting the “Supergirl from Krypton” arc from the comics.  I think it’s the lips that really take it into “wtf were they thinking” territory. Top tip: When drawing Superman, it’s probably not a good idea to make it look as though he’s had botched lip plumping surgery.  Or like someone replaced his eyes with those of a creepy porcelain doll. At least  it can’t  get any worse, right?

All-Star Superman

Um . . . yeah.

Moving swiftly on.

Superman seems to get something of a bad rap these days, dismissed by many as childishly “idealistic” or “overpowered” in contrast to more “mature” heroes such as Batman or Iron Man. Whilst both propositions do have some merit, I’d put such problems down to good old fashioned bad writing (flying around the Earth to turn back time is a particularly dire example of this) rather than anything inherent to Superman himself. It’s also important to remember that Superman is the product of a different, less cynical age,  embodying the very best American ideals; liberty and justice for all, regardless of colour or creed, as well as a quintessentially America optimism. Though Superman hasn’t always been the shining example of integrity and justice we know today . . .

Oh Superman, will threatening people with guns ever get less morally questionable?

More on this another time.

Next time in Geek on the Threshold: Something other than superheroes.


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